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The Spanish Inquisition Lives On in Arizona’s Ban on Mexican American Studies

Arizona’s HB 2281 attempts to suppress Indigenous knowledge.

(Photo: DGLimages / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

I have always viewed Arizona’s effort to eradicate Mexican American Studies (MAS) as something akin to an unholy Inquisition. For some, that will sound hyperbolic; not for me.

US district Judge Wallace Tashima is expected to make a decision soon on whether the 2010 Arizona House Bill 2281 legislation, which bans Arizona public schools from offering ethnic studies classes, was passed with the intention of discriminating against Tucson’s Mexican American students.

The measure prohibited public schools from offering classes that allegedly “promote the overthrow of the United States Government,” “promote resentment towards a race or class of people,” “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

In practice, HB 2281 was used in 2012 to dismantle Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies program, which was created in the 1990s to highlight Mexican American/Indigenous literature and history. In dismantling the program, Arizona banned more than 80 books from use in public school classrooms, including titles such as Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, by Bill Bigelow, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire, Critical Race Theory, by Richard Delgado and 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, by Elizabeth Martinez. (Two of my books were banned the year before.)

This June and July, Judge Tashima presided over a two-week trial, at which the State of Arizona defended HB 2281 while Tucson students and teachers argued that it was crafted with racist intent. The trial drew to a close without a ruling, with Tashima promising to issue one within the next few weeks.

From the Book Burnings to the Book Bans

During the beginning of this historic trial, I found myself in Mexico City, where I visited two very disturbing museums dedicated to Spain’s medieval Inquisition in Mexico. While there, something gnawed at me, telling me that I needed to return to the trial in Tucson, yet something even more powerful compelled me to keep heading further south.

I had been visiting gravely-ill elder relatives, yet at the trial’s conclusion, I actually found myself on the grounds of the infamous Mani, Yucatán cathedral, the site of a 1562 auto-de-fé — a ritual of “public penance” inflicted on alleged heretics during the Spanish Inquisition.

When I arrived at the cathedral, an elder named Dzul Ek explained that the 1562 auto-de-fé at that site involved an infamous three-day book burning.

Throughout the Spanish Inquisition, autos-de-fé involved trials, book burnings, ceremonies of public penitence, whippings and burning at the stake. The infamous book burning at Mani was just one example of the 300-year auto-de-fé inflicted upon Spanish colonies in which anything involving ancient Indigenous knowledge, religion or philosophy was considered demonic. That meant that not only did ancient books become illegal, but so did anything that connoted memory and pre-Columbian Indigenous knowledge, even traditional medicines and food, such as amaranth. The knowledge was considered illegal and those that possessed it were considered witches and sorcerers, in league with the devil. Many were tortured and or put to death by fire or hanging. Many, of course, did not even have the benefit of such “trials.”

As I reflected on this history, I instantly knew I had not been mistaken in needing to be there at that particular moment. It was akin to a spiritual pilgrimage; what happened there in 1562 continues to be undeniably linked to continued efforts to eradicate Indigenous memory — the efforts to disappear “non-Western” memory — everywhere on this continent.

This history has always held the key to understanding the rationale behind the shutting down of the highly successful MAS program in Arizona and the banning of its books.

What was banned in Tucson as a result of HB 2281 was not so much a program or a curriculum or even its books, but a worldview. Included in the core of the Mas program were the Maya or maiz-based concepts of In Lak’ Ech (You are my other me) and Panche Be (To seek the root of the truth).

In effect, as a result of HB 2281, things deemed to be outside of Greco-Roman culture (Western civilization) by the state became illegal to teach in Arizona, precipitating the filing of the Acosta v. Huppenthal lawsuit against the state in 2010.

The controversy over the MAS program has, at its root, been about what is permissible versus impermissible knowledge — a controversy that runs from the present directly back to even before 1562. Because of the violent punishments inflicted by superstitious priests during the colonial era, Indigenous history by Indigenous authors has generally not been taught anywhere on this continent until very recently.

The two authors of HB 2281, former school superintendent John Huppenthal and his predecessor, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, have made clear that their opposition to MAS is based in their notion of what is inside or outside of “civilization”; all their other arguments were but subterfuge.

In 2007, speaking before the conservative Heritage Foundation, Horne first invoked the theme of the superiority of Greco-Roman culture and Western civilization, a theme he would advance for 10 years in his efforts to destroy MAS.

Both Huppenthal and Horne testified unrepentantly in court this summer to defend the measure.

During the trial, Huppenthal outdid Horne by claiming that the trial represented an eternal conflict between individualism and collectivism that had been raging since the advent of civilization.

As to whether there was racial animus involved in eliminating MAS, the smaller answer is yes, conservative lawmakers passed HB 2281 because they saw the program as teaching radical Chicano politics, Paolo Freirean liberation pedagogy, and also Indigenous knowledge, history and philosophies.

The larger answer is that it was passed for religio-racial (civilizational war) reasons. It was based on the idea that people from Europe are civilized, and peoples from the rest of the world, including Indigenous peoples from the Americas, are uncivilized.

It appears that those who supported the ban on ethnic studies saw their struggle, which is related to providence and manifest destiny, as derived from a God-given mandate to wipe out any cultures that they deem to be collectivist and thus uncivilized.

Regardless of how Judge Tashima rules, the state can be assured that the knowledge that was being taught will continue to be taught nationwide, including in Arizona, even if it has to be done via street theater. And after 500 years, the auto-de-fé against Indigenous peoples must and will come to an end.

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